Matthias Schoenaerts on new film Racer and the Jailbird, Terrence Malick, and why he won't leave Antwerp

The actor may be making a name for himself as a screen hunk, but he's no interest in the Hollywood lifestyle – and even worries Europe is in decline

James Mottram
Friday 13 July 2018 13:41 BST
Matthias Schoenaerts
Matthias Schoenaerts

“I feel like I’m many different people,” says Matthias Schoenaerts, the handsome star who could be Antwerp’s answer to Tom Hardy.

He’s referring to the way his name is pronounced; in Flemish it is ‘Scoonaerts’, but others emphasise the ‘Sch’ sound. But he could just as easily talking about his characters: Carey Mulligan’s sheep-farming suitor in Far From The Madding Crowd; the bare-knuckle fighter in the brilliant Rust and Bone, or Jennifer Lawrence’s duplicitous uncle in Red Sparrow.

Ensconced on the terrace of a Venetian hotel, the 40-year-old Schoenaerts can barely sit still. One minute, he’s fervently ordering his coffee, the next he’s doing a very good (and loud) impression of Joe Pesci.

“I wonder what happened to Joe Pesci? He’s such a brilliant actor and he’s so underused,” he muses, unaware that the Italian-American Oscar-winner, who went into semi-retirement, is back for Martin Scorsese’s Netflix drama The Irishman.

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Matthias Schoenaerts in 'Racer and the Jailbird'

Schoenaerts has just the right sort of physicality to muscle into a Scorsese flick. His breakthrough was in Michaël R Roskam’s Bullhead as a steroid-pumped lug; they reunited for the Dennis Lehane adaptation The Drop – pairing Schoenaerts with one Tom Hardy...

Now they’re back for a third outing, Racer and the Jailbird, a Brussels-set crime tale that thieves some of its ideas from Michael Mann’s Heat in an exhilarating bit of cinematic larceny.

Schoenaerts plays Gigi, a member of a professional heist crew who falls for Bibi, a female racing car driver (played by Blue Is The Warmest Colour’s Adèle Exarchopoulos). While she initially has no idea of his criminal activities, he’s desperate to quit the life. But then his team lure him back for one last job...

“What I like in this movie, [is that] the love story is the heart… normally, it’s the crime story and the love story has influence on it,” says Schoenaerts. “Michaël inverses that. I love that.”

I ask if there are any similarities between he and Gigi. “I think I love life as much,” he says. “Although there are moments when I don’t love life so much, I think I can say that my deeper nature is somebody that loves life. Absolutely. I want to eat all the fruits of life, I want to see all the trees in the garden of life and taste everything in there!

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With Carey Mulligan in 'Far From the Madding Crowd' 

“When I love, I love. When I’m angry, I’m angry.” He points a finger. “So watch it!”

While Schoenaerts has gradually been making his name in English-language films – The Danish Girl, A Bigger Splash – he felt compelled to work with Roskam again, even when a role from Alexander Payne’s comedy Downsizing was also on the table.

“That’s what friendship is about. That’s what loyalty is about. And that’s what this movie is about. It’s about making a promise and keeping that promise. The ethics, the morals… where you make a promise, make a promise.”

He’s loyal to his co-stars too – particularly Red Sparrow’s Jennifer Lawrence. He praises her work ethic across the shoot and fires a rebuttal against detractors.

With Marion Cotillard in 2012's ‘Rust and Bone’

“Because you’re a big star, everyone expects you to be friendly to them!” he rants. “She’s out there under pressure all the time. If she’s tired, let her be tired. Don’t be offended because she doesn’t say ‘Hi’ to you. Because then you’re an egoist.” And he’s not big on ego, big trailers, or any other celebrity trappings.

Schoenaerts is in a more thoughtful mood than when I’ve met him previously. Maybe it’s turning 40. Maybe it’s starring in the forthcoming Radegund, the new film from Terrence Malick.

“I’ve had a couple of life-changing experiences on set, and working with Terrence Malick is definitely one of them,” he says. “I like his gentleness, his admiration for life and for the elements. I love the warmth, I love his humanity and generosity and tenderness and his focus.”

This latest film tells the story of real-life Austrian Franz Jägerstätter (played by August Diehl), a conscientious objector who refuses to fight for the Nazis in the Second World War. Schoenaerts points out that Jägerstätter’s story was “a major inspiration for Muhammad Ali” when the boxer was similarly resisting the American government’s call for him to go fight during Vietnam.

“It’s crazy, right? That an Austrian inspired Muhammad Ali not to go to Vietnam. That’s history, that’s beautiful.”

Is he religious at all? “It depends,” he says, pausing. “I’m not Catholic. I’m not Muslim. I’m not Orthodox. I’m not any of that. I don’t like how these religions are being misused and abused for mass manipulation.”

He then goes on one of his windy digressions, taking a spiritual tone this time. “We’re on a giant rock in a dark sphere with a billion galaxies. Everything is connected. If I hurt myself, I hurt you. If I disrespect you, I disrespect myself.”

Away from acting, he paints – “less socially intense”, as an activity. “I have more peace when I paint. Internal peace.”

Heist movie: Matthais  Schoenaerts plays Gigi in 'Racer and the Jailbird'

He’s also learning to kite surf, a sport that connects him to the elements. He gazes out at the water behind me. “It suits my soul when I’m close to the sea.”

He still lives in Antwerp, where he grew up (his father Julien was an actor; his mother Dominique was a costume designer and translator). He can’t even imagine living in Brussels, let alone Hollywood.

“I wouldn’t live in Brussels,” he says. “It has something sad about it. Brussels really reveals the soul of Europe today. We’re in decline. There’s something about the European soul – that made us what we were in the past – that we’re losing. We’re losing our ethics. We’re losing our morals. We’re losing our heart. We need to change that around. Real soon. Or shit is going down real bad!”

At this point, possibly over-excited by caffeine, Schoenaerts goes on another rant – about President Trump and how “his word ain’t s***”. Then he apologies for his language.

“But that stuff makes me nuts,” he sighs.

Curiously, it’s another controversial leader, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, that Schoenaerts has more connection to right now. He’s just finished shooting Thomas Vinterberg’s Kursk, based on a real-life submarine disaster in which 118 Russian sailors died.

Putin featured in the original script, but was cut out before being shot. “The lawyer said if you want to avoid problems, just take him out… [or] that could destroy the film. They could ban the film, it could be censored. If you want to be absolutely safe, keep him out. And it doesn’t kill the movie.”

Despite the excision, he seems delighted with the film, which – like Radegund – is likely to premiere at Venice and/or Toronto during the autumn. “I think it will be such a powerful movie,” he says.

Schoenaerts is also getting behind the camera, working on a documentary about a one-legged childhood friend, Franky van Hove, who became an MMA fighter. Don’t expect it anytime soon, though.

“That will take another 10 years,” he says. “The most important component of that documentary is time, I think.”

What about unfulfilled dreams? Does he have any? “Probably,” he shrugs. “I don’t think about it. I just fulfil the next one. I don’t think about what is unfulfilled. I try to fulfil what is coming.”

'Racer and the Jailbird' is released 13 July

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